It would be a significant change to U.S. immigration policy that's long favored family ties over economic or job criteria. And it's already sparking opposition from groups trying to protect family-based immigration.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who is part of a bipartisan Senate group negotiating the bill, said the aim is to remake the immigration system so it has a much clearer economic focus.
"Green cards should be reserved for the nuclear family. Green cards are economic engines for the country," Graham said. "This is not a family court we're dealing with here. We're dealing about an economic need."
Unlike most other industrialized nations, the U.S. awards a much larger proportion of green cards to family members of U.S. citizens and permanent residents than to foreigners with job prospects here. Green cards are permanent resident visas and allow holders to eventually become citizens.
About two-thirds of permanent legal immigration to the U.S. is family-based, compared with about 15 percent that is employment-based, according to the Migration Policy Institute. The remainder is largely humanitarian.
Current law gives preference to spouses and minor and unmarried children of U.S. citizens. Permanent residents can petition for immediate family, and citizens can petition to bring in their married children and siblings, but they're on a lower priority. Graham indicated that he would prefer to eliminate the married children and sibling categories altogether.
"We're going to change fundamentally the immigration system," said Graham.
Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, criticized the proposed changes.
"What the senator's not taking into account is the social costs for not preserving families in the immigration system, which is not as tangible or measurable as an economic benefit, maybe, but immigrant families do strengthen our social fabric," Appleby said.
Appleby said that instead of reducing green cards for family members and increasing them for employment ties, senators should simply make more green cards available over all. Lawmakers in the past, Republicans in particular, have opposed that approach. Meanwhile they've been hearing pleas from the technology industry for more high-tech workers and from industries like hospitality and agriculture that use lower-skilled workers.
Advocates agree that changes are needed to the family immigration system. Right now there are more than 4 million people waiting in backlogs, with Filipinos in the sibling category facing waits topping two decades. The Senate group has committed to reducing that backlog.
The tension between family- and employment-based immigration has not gotten as much attention in a debate that's often focused on border security and the fate of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already here, who would be given a path to legalize their status in the Senate bill. But the issue could become contentious as senators work to finalize their legislation by next month.
In the last round of immigration negotiations in 2007, the Catholic Church ended up opposing action on the bill in part because of discomfort with a proposal that replaced the family-based system with one that awarded points based on job skills, English ability, education and family ties in handing out visas.